Another Father’s Day

Two years ago, I published this post to mark the onset of another Father’s Day.  The sentiments expressed are even more true today, so I re-post it, slightly adapted, in hope that all of us who are fathers will enjoy it.

I came across an arresting picture on the internet recently, one that caused me to give some serious thought to what it takes to be a father.

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At first, I didn’t fully understand the symbolism inherent in the picture.  In fact, my first thought was that the son was systematically dismantling his father in order to complete himself.  Selfish, no?

But after a bit, I came to think the artist’s intent was more likely to show how much fathers give of themselves for their sons, even to the point of depleting their very being.  Selfless, right?

Still, I had difficulty coming to terms with either of those representations of fatherhood.  In the first place, I don’t have a son.  For the past forty-eight years I’ve been father to two wonderful daughters, so the picture didn’t truly portray me.

More importantly, though, I discovered I had a problem with the notion that fathers must become diminished in order that their children might thrive.  It’s true, of course, that any nurturing father will freely give of himself to help his children—so, in that sense, the picture of the fractured father did make some sense.

But it’s been my experience with my daughters that, the more I gave, the more I got in return.  And it wasn’t even an equal exchange!  What came back to me from the girls was infinitely more than I could possibly have given.

Dad, Tara, Megan 2

As they progressed from infancy to girlhood, I used to tell them all the time how much I loved them, and I tried to mirror my words through my behaviours.  But with them, it was the reverse.  The loving attention they lavished on me—their hugs and kisses, their squeals of delight when I’d arrive home—made it unnecessary that they say anything.  They filled my heart every time I held them.

It was after each of them was born that I learned I didn’t have to carve out a chunk from my love for my wife in order to find love for them.  Love builds upon itself, I discovered; it multiplies and is unending.  So, each time I passed along one of those chunks of love, I was not depleted like the father in the picture; rather I was made even more complete.

Through their teenage years and into young womanhood, I came to realize the importance of letting them go bit by bit, even as I continued to hug them close.  And when they would come to me for advice, or even just for a sympathetic ear, our conversations were honest, sincere, and loving.  Even when I pretended to be the sage passing along my accumulated wisdom, I found I learned more from them—about their world, about the challenges and opportunities confronting them, and about the persons they were becoming.  Any chunks of insight I gave were repaid tenfold, and I was not at all diminished.

Tara and Megan 3

As mothers now, their first priority is to their husbands and children.  I don’t see them as often as once I did, but our get-togethers are all the more enjoyable for that.  I’ve tried to let both girls know that, although they long ago stopped being children, I’ve never stopped being a father.  They understand that and still go out of their way to make me feel valued and loved—supplemented even now, not depleted; relevant, not sidelined.

There’s an old saying that we have to give a little to get a little.  Well, when all is said and done, I gave what I could as a father, and I got so much more in return.  With another Father’s Day fast upon us, I give thanks anew for the great privilege I’ve had with such children.

If I had a picture similar to the one of that father and his son, there would be two daughters, complete and whole, and a father—double their size, swollen with the love and honour they’ve lavished on me.

Bursting, in fact.

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The Laggard

Near the end of the first semester of my second year in grade eleven, during which time I was seventeen, discouraged, and not faring particularly well, my parents came home from an interview with my history teacher, in just his second year of teaching at the time.

“He told us you’re no ball of fire,” my mother said.

“He said you’re something of a laggard,” my father said.

A laggard!

There’s no question I was floundering in his class.  But rather than explaining for my parents what I was doing wrong, suggesting how I might do better, or proposing how he might more effectively help me, he resorted to affixing me with a label.

Laggard!

I was angry with that teacher for a long time.  And I was stung by the disappointment in my parents’ eyes.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

Seventeen years later, at the age of thirty-four, I was a first-year principal in the same school district.  At a principals’ association meeting during the winter semester, I was with a number of colleagues in the men’s room, washing up after our business meeting.  As we stood at the urinals and wash-basins, one of our number told an off-colour joke, the details of which I forget.  But it involved people of colour, and was not flattering to them.  Several people laughed heartily.

As the laughter abated, and before someone else could tell another joke, one veteran principal—small in stature, fiery by nature—angrily tore a wad of paper towel from the dispenser.

“I’m sorry!” he snapped as he slammed the paper into the wastebasket.  “I make it a practice never to laugh at racist jokes!”

In the ensuing, abashed silence, I stared at myself in the mirror over the sink—glad I had not been one of those who’d laughed, somewhat ashamed I had not spoken up as my colleague had.

Pausing at the door, the man added, “I’m not saying all of you are racist.  But somebody told that joke, and a lot of you laughed!”

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I approached him near the bar a few moments later, introduced myself, and thanked him.

“For what?” he said, looking up at me, his eyes a piercing blue.

“For what you said in the men’s room,” I answered.  “I wish I’d had the courage to say that.”

“Did you laugh at the joke, son?” he asked.

“No.”

“Well, that’s good,” he said.  “Can I buy you a beer?”

We stood off to one side, no one else apparently eager to engage with him just then.  And in his short, sharp manner of speaking, he proceeded to help me learn some valuable lessons.

“It never makes things better when you accuse people of being racists,” he said.  “Never helps!  Doesn’t help to accuse them of being misogynists, either, or xenophobes.  Accusations only lead to denials.”

I nodded and sipped.

“Labels are easy to deny,” he continued.  “Labelling never works!  But you know what’s harder to deny?”

“What?” I asked.

“When you describe people’s behaviour to them.  When you tell them what you’ve seen them doing.  They’ll recognize it.  And telling them what you’ve heard them saying.  They’ll remember their own words.  And maybe, just maybe, they’ll start to realize what they’re doing or saying is inappropriate.”

“Like referencing the laughter in the men’s room,” I said.

“Exactly!”

I waited, hoping for more.

“It’s the same thing I encourage my teachers to do,” he said.  “Don’t label your students! Describe their strengths and needs, describe their accomplishments and shortcomings.  Describe for them the things they need to do in order to succeedBy doing that, you’ll know better how to help each of them take the next step.  Labelling kids never helps.  Labelling anybody never helps!”

We were called to dinner about then, and went off to our respective tables.  I encountered him many more times over the years, of course, but I never forgot the things he said on that first occasion.  He was the first man I ever knew who didn’t just profess to be anti-racist; he demonstrated his true colours through his actions and words.  And he did it fearlessly.  To use a common phrase, he walked the talk.

I’ve been thinking about him over these past couple of weeks of racial turmoil, here in Canada and especially south of the border, wondering what advice he’d have for me.  As I watch TV and read news accounts online, I’m struck by the ferocity of the back-and-forth arguments and name-calling between those accusing others of racism and those others denying it.

Racist!  Terrorist!  Fascist!  Leftist!  Boogaloo!  Antifa! 

I search, often in vain, for factual descriptions of what is actually happening—what people are doing, how people are behaving—so that I might determine for myself how they could take a next step toward reconciliation.

And I applaud those who propose concrete steps toward that end, most of which will require a good deal of time and hard work to achieve.  To paraphrase Martin Luther King, Jr., the ultimate measure of people is not where they stand in moments of comfort and convenience, but where they stand at times of challenge and controversy.

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My principal colleague was one such person.  He believed that leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.  He believed that good teachers tell; average teachers explain; superior teachers demonstrate; and great teachers inspire.

He certainly inspired me.

Accusations and labelling never work.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

A coda:  At the age of forty-nine, thirty-two years after that history teacher labelled me a laggard, I met him again.  He was retiring from the classroom, and I—by then CEO of the school district for which he now worked—was presiding at a ceremony to honour our retiring employees.  I shook hands with every one of them, most of whom did not know me personally, of course.  But that teacher remembered.

“I guess I was wrong about you,” he had the temerity to say, more sheepish than apologetic.

Being only human, I had to stifle that long-ago, seventeen-year-old boy within me, who wanted to reply, “Thirty-five years and still a classroom teacher, eh?  Who’s the laggard now?”  Vengeful.

Instead, I said, “Thirty-five years as a classroom teacher!  You’ve certainly affected a lot of kids over all that time.”  Serene.

“For better or worse,” he said, smiling at his own wit.

“Indeed!” I said, and moved on.

Firecracker Day!

The twenty-fourth of May is the King’s birthday,

If you don’t give us a holiday, we’ll all run away…

Those were the opening lines of a schoolyard rhyme we kids would sing joyously as the long holiday-weekend drew near.

…We’ll break all the rules and tear down the schools,

And call all the teachers silly old fools!

The King, of course, was George VI—by the Grace of God, of Great Britain, Ireland and the British Dominions beyond the Seas King, Defender of the Faith.  His picture adorned the walls of every classroom, and every morning my classmates and I joined voices in mostly off-key renditions of God Save the King, the Canadian national anthem way back then.

For some years, we also recited a pledge of allegiance to the Union Flag, known to us as the Union Jack, then still the flag of Canada—I pledge allegiance to the flag and to the empire for which it stands; one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.  Or something like that.

None of us really knew the significance of any of it, of course—the King, the anthem, or the flag.  But we dutifully manifested our loyalty and obeisance, proud to be part of something bigger than ourselves.

Strangely enough, although we didn’t know it, the twenty-fourth of May wasn’t really the King’s birthday at all.  Rather, it was the day named to honour the birthday of his auspicious great-grandmother, Queen Victoria, born 24 May 1819, who reigned for more than sixty-three years (a record currently being extended by her great-great-granddaughter, King George’s daughter, Elizabeth II).  As such, it was known officially as Victoria Day.

Adding to the strangeness, the need to ensure a holiday-Monday in years when the twenty-fourth of the month fell on another day of the week meant that we often celebrated the occasion on a different date, usually the Monday preceding the actual twenty-fourth.

To us kids, however, none of that mattered.  For us, it was always just Firecracker Day!

Because we could hardly wait for darkness to descend on the big day, that Monday would seem like the longest day of the year.  In my neighbourhood, five or six families would pool what were often meagre resources to purchase a package of fireworks.  We’d gather in someone’s backyard, the kids and mothers safely removed from the launch area, the fathers bustling about as if they knew what they were doing.

The fireworks were nothing like the fantastical pyrotechnic displays we have become used to over the past few years, of course.  These were much more modest.  The usual format would see a few low-rising pinwheels set off at the beginning, some in vivid colours that drew oohs! and aahs! from everyone assembled, our faces craned skyward.  They made sounds like phoomph! and peeshhh! as their glowing embers drifted up and up, and then inevitably down as they died.

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The second group included firecrackers shooting higher into the night sky, exploding with more force and noise—takatakatakataka! and bang-bang-bang!  Blossoms and plumes, the white ones so bright they would make us squint, would rain down, miraculously extinguished before they ever reached the ground.  I can still hear the squeals and shouts of delight and awe from everyone, and see their faces lit up by excitement—even the fathers, normally so macho and reserved.

The last batch would be the ones we all had been waiting for, the boomers and cannons that seemed to climb impossibly high before exploding in huge, fiery blooms and streamers.  Ka-whumph!  Ka-ba-blammm!  Boom-boom-boom!  Even when we knew what was coming, we’d be startled by each successive percussion, plugging our ears, almost feeling the sound pounding physically into us.

The very best one was always saved ‘til the end, and one of the fathers would make sure that everyone knew this was it.  It felt like no one was breathing as he bent over, ignition stick in hand, touched the fuse, then leapt back out of the way.

Whooooshshsh!  The powerful rocket would burst from the ground, trailing fire and smoke, the mightiest of any we had seen.  The plume from its tail would flame out, we’d wait, we’d wait…and then KABOOM-KABOOM-KABOOM!  The multi-coloured contrails would zoom higher and higher, arching and spreading wider than any before, like a tablecloth being floated high overhead, before settling down upon us.

Most of the time, as I recall, we were struck dumb by the spectacle.

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At the end of the evening, every kid would get a sparkler, a long wand with which, once it was ignited, we could write our names in fiery letters in the dark (those of us who could write, anyway).  And then the night was over, a night that always seemed incredibly short after such a long day of waiting.

It’s been sixty years and more since last I was part of such a celebration, and I won’t be out in anyone’s backyard on Firecracker Day this year, either.  But I’ll almost surely enjoy a quaff or two, and will probably raise a toast to the Crown.

For old time’s sake, I may even sing a chorus of God Save the King.

But quietly, for those days of my youth are gone forever.

He Is Us!

Back in the late 1940’s, when I was in my formative years, a savvy and prescient social observer said, “We have met the enemy and he is us!”

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The speaker was Pogo Possum, an unprepossessing denizen of the Okefenokee Swamp, which straddles the border separating Florida from Georgia.  During the next fifty years, Pogo would go on to become an American icon, famous the world over for his gentle, yet scathing, commentary on the world around us.

Strangely, many people today have never heard of him, but from the time I first took an interest in comic strips, Pogo was one of my favourites.  And he remains that to this day—all the more so, considering where we presently find ourselves.

Pogo was the creation of Walt Kelly, a cartoonist extraordinaire who lived from 1913-1973, and it is Kelly’s inspiration that put words into the mouths of Pogo and his many friends and acquaintances in the swamp.

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Among them were:  Porky Pine, a gloomy, misanthropic soul, perhaps Pogo’s closest pal, an Okefenokee version of A.A. Milne’s Eeyore; Albert Alligator, extroverted and garrulous, often the comic foil for Pogo; Howland Owl, a self-proclaimed perfesser and fount of all knowledge; Churchy LaFemme, a hapless, superstitious mud turtle; Miz Mam’selle Hepzibah, a beautiful French skunk who often pined for Pogo; Beauregard Bugleboy, a hound dog who, as his grand name might suggest, fancied himself a dashing figure, often recounting tales of his own heroics in the third-person; and Miz Beaver, a corncob pipe-smoking washerwoman with scant regard for menfolk.

Pogo himself was a mild-mannered soul, described by Kelly as “the reasonable, patient, soft-hearted, naive, friendly person we all think we are.”  Almost always portrayed hanging with friends, picnicking or fishing, he seemed the wisest, most laid-back, most down-to-earth swamp denizen, doggedly determined to avoid trouble.  Alas, to his chagrin, he was often taken advantage of by those same friends.

The issues they faced in their wilderness home so many years ago presage many of those we face today—pollution, overcrowding, segregation and racism, and corrupt, self-interest politics.  Listening to the utterances of the various characters on the concerns of their day resonates as much today as when they first spoke.  Take, for example, the challenges facing governments as they tackle the Covid-19 scourge:

Y’see, when you start to lick a national problem you have to go after the fundamentables.
We are confronted with insurmountable opportunities.
Having lost sight of our objectives, we redoubled our efforts.

Or, think of the swelling cries from so many, bemoaning the encroachment of government on civil liberties during these trying times, refusing to comply with measures to ensure public safety:

I ain’t said much but I is been pushed around ee-nuf!  I is gone stand up for my rights!  And I got rights I ain’t hardly used yet!
The minority got us outnumbered.

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The lovable swamp critters sometimes proposed radical solutions, just as many do today:

You want to cut down air pollution? Cut down the original source…breathin’!
Don’t take life so serious. It ain’t nohow permanent.

Occasionally, a familiar note of resignation crept into their musings:

Now is the time for all good men to come to.
If you can’t win, don’t join them; learn how to lose.

And, of course, there were commentaries on the political leaders of the day—some of which, I believe, apply to certain (unnamed) charlatans in power today:

Y’know, ol’ Albert [or a name of your choice] leads a life of noisy desperation.
In like a dimwit, out like a light.

Of all the Okefenokee witticisms, though, the one I like best, and which seems truest of all today, is Pogo’s observation that the enemy is us.  When I survey the planetary problems presently facing us—the most urgent of which right now is Covid-19—how many have we brought upon ourselves through our callous disregard for our global village and its residents?

To name a few of these enemies:  world hunger, increasing poverty, global warming, pandemic outbreaks, nuclear proliferation, mass migration, and pollution of land, sea, and air.

To pose the question in a more positive way, how many of these same enemies could we actively and successfully confront through a united effort spread across all humankind?

Most, if not all, is the answer, I believe.

Sadly, however, I fear it may never be.  For, as Pogo so eloquently told us in those bygone times, we have already met our greatest enemy.

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And indeed, he is us!

 

Powerless

On a warm August afternoon in 2003, as we lazed on the dock at our home on the lake in cottage-country, basking in the sun, chatting amiably, the electric power grid shut down.  Boom!  Just that quickly.

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We didn’t know, of course, not right away.  Not until one of us headed up to the house to replenish our drinks and shouted the news back down to the rest.  And even then, none of us worried much about it.

Power outages were a fact of life in our rural setting.  Living in the north was a glorious experience, one we enjoyed for fifteen years, but the infrastructure was not nearly so sophisticated as in large, urban areas.

Telephone service was usually reliable, the operative word being usually.  But everything else in the house depended upon electricity—heating, all appliances, lights, the internet (rudimentary as it was back then), and most importantly, running water, which flowed through an elaborate purification system in our basement, powered by a pump submerged in the lake.

On the many occasions we had lost power in the past, it never lasted long.  Thinking back on it now, I realize how naïve we were, how foolish not to have a generator on stand-by.  But we didn’t.  The need had never arisen.

As this latest outage dragged into the early evening hours, we decided to ‘rough it’, which meant cooking everything but the meat (which we always did on the barbecue) on an old propane camping-stove I hauled down from its shelf in the garage.  Afterwards, we stowed the dirty dishes in the dishwasher for cleaning, fully expecting the power to come back on momentarily.

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Before dusk gave way to the almost-total blackness of night, when the forest seemed to creep closer around us and the stars winked on by the thousands in the sky overhead, I lit our two propane lanterns, complaining, I’m sure, about how long the outage had lasted.

And then we went to bed.

By morning, the power was still not up and running.  I trundled large pails of water from the lake to the house, placing one in each bathroom to refill toilet tanks after flushing.  We resurrected the old cottage credo, When it’s yellow, let it mellow; when it’s brown, flush it down.

Another large pail went to the kitchen for boiling in a pot on the camping-stove.  We opened the refrigerator as little as possible, the freezer not at all.  And we washed our dishes in the sink.

Both our daughters were home from school for the summer, working at a resort restaurant some distance from the house.  The phone was working, and they found out after calling that the place was also affected, and would stay closed until power was restored.

Absent electricity, we had no way, short of phoning neighbours and family in the city, to ascertain what was happening.  The news we got from them described a huge power blackout encompassing much of the eastern seaboard, both in Canada and the U.S.

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Resigned to that, we enjoyed another lovely summer day, boating, swimming, sunbathing, all the time expecting the power back at any moment.  Around mid-afternoon, we began to plan for another camp-style dinner, just in case.  I had begun to feel like the pioneers, I think, hardy souls who could manage off-the-grid.  I remember remarking to my wife that we could probably survive like this indefinitely, thanks to a ready, natural food supply.

She had long been cultivating a large truck-garden behind the house, full of asparagus, lettuce, peas, beans, radishes, beets, tomatoes, and a variety of herbs.  Poppies had been strategically planted, too, to keep the deer from harvesting the crop before we could.  Eating that fresh produce was a season-long delight, and one which we now gave renewed thanks for.

The lake was stocked with fish, as well, and we had enjoyed many a fine feast of bass and pickerel over the years.

Nevertheless, my wife was not enamoured of my clueless remark.

On the following morning, day 3, we were still powerless.  Our early-morning swims were taken with soap, something we normally did not do for fear of fouling the water, but which was proving necessary, given the lack of hot water for baths and showers.  That was especially important for the girls, who were called into work that day when the power came back on in the sector where the restaurant was located.  We rejoiced at the news, fully anticipating the same thing for our neighbourhood.  Alas, it was not to be.

Following their shift, the girls drove home in the dark to find us huddled around the propane lanterns in the living-room—sunk in a funk, to be honest, in contrast to our usual sunny, optimistic natures.  The initial excitement of roughing it had given way to resentment at our plight, still engulfed in blackness when everyone around us (we had begun to imagine) had been restored to the light.

Day 4, another wondrous late-summer morning, brought more of the same.  By now, we had emptied the freezer, either cooking the items before they thawed and spoiled, or throwing out those we could not get to.  The girls had brought bags of ice home after work, and we had packed perishable goods from the refrigerator into two large coolers.  We were still wonderfully self-sufficient and in control, or so I tried to assure myself.

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Except, we no longer cared about that!  The bloom was long off the rose by then, and all we wanted was our old lives back.  By mid-afternoon, when the girls were readying to leave for work, my wife and I decided enough was enough.  After a hasty phone call to book a room at the resort where the restaurant was located, we threw a few things in our overnight bags and jumped in the car with the girls.

I could tell you that we never went back, but that would be untrue.  In fact, we returned the next day after electricity was finally and fully restored in our area, and resumed our enjoyment of the summer.  Powerless no longer.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about that experience back in 2003, as I sit now in our condo home in the city, older and wiser (I hope), confined by the pandemic sweeping the globe.  And as much as I like to think we can survive this indefinitely, I know from experience that just isn’t so.

We are so dependent upon so many others to maintain the supply-chains for our food and medications, our communications, our hospitals and other essential services.  And every one of those is reliant upon that one indispensable need: electricity.

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I pray we will not become powerless again.

Listening to My Mother

As a young boy, lo, those many years ago, I listened to my mother—not because I always wanted to, but because I quickly learned that not doing so could have severe consequences.  She’s been gone ten years and more, and yet I find I’m still listening, especially now, living in this pandemic world in which we find ourselves.

“Wash and brush your teeth first thing,” she’d say, “and brush your hair.  Make your bed before you get dressed, then come down for breakfast.”

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She didn’t tell me to shave, of course, my being but a stripling who had no need to do so.  But I was told to put my pyjamas away and drop my dirty clothes into the hamper on my way to the kitchen.

I didn’t need telling every day, but the reminders were frequent enough.  And woe betide me if I neglected any of the tasks.

Fast forward to today, and you’d see this past-mid-seventies man I have become still making my bed right after returning from my first visit of the day to the bathroom (where, of course, I wash and brush my teeth).  I still don’t shave, at least not every day, but I do brush my hair assiduously.

After slipping my PJ’s under the pillow, I get dressed (always neatly, if not stylishly), gather up any laundry, and head for the kitchen.

My mother always had breakfast ready when I got there, sometimes preceded by my brother and sisters, and she watched closely to ensure we ate everything—juice, oatmeal porridge, toast, and milk.

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“Sit up tall,” she’d say.  “Lift your spoon to your mouth.  Lean over your bowl.  Hold your spoon properly.”

My remembering it like this might make her sound like a martinet, but she was not.  Neither was she a nag.  She simply wanted each of us to be the best we could be, and she had strong opinions as to what the best looked like.

Today, my breakfast might consist of cottage cheese with fresh fruit mixed in, and a couple of oat biscuits; or granola with fresh fruit and yogurt.  Green tea has replaced the glass of milk, but juice is still a staple.  And while I am eating, I sit straight, careful not to lower my chin to the bowl.

“Don’t leave your dishes on the counter,” my mother would say when we’d get up to leave the table.  “Put them in the sink.  And make sure you fold your napkin and push your chair back in.”

To this day, my napkin is rolled carefully into the napkin ring, the chairs in my kitchen sit squarely around the table, pushed in just so.  And no dirty dishes adorn the countertop (although a dishwasher has replaced the sink to receive them).

I Love School

Our reward back then, as we tumbled out the door to school, was a smiling kiss from our taskmaster.  We expected it, looked forward to it, and remembered it often throughout the day.

Looking back, I think these instructions from my mother helped prepare us to face the world in front of us.  The subtle sense of accomplishment we gained from completing such simple chores, even if we weren’t consciously aware of it, instilled a sense of confidence in us that we were more than up to the task of dealing with whatever might befall us.

Of course, we were uncomplicated souls back then, my siblings and I.  As a senior citizen today, I would have expected myself to be much more jaded by now, much less naïve, not so likely to be swayed or influenced by simple rewards for elementary tasks.

Yet, here I am, confined to home because of the dreaded pandemic swirling around us, unsure as to what might lie ahead, needing that jolt of confidence more than ever.  I’m making my bed first thing every day, brushing my teeth, sitting up straight at the table.  I’m doing the dishes, the laundry, the numerous other household chores that keep my shrunken world from toppling over the edge into chaos.

And why?  Well, the answer to that is simple.

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I’m still listening to my mother.

Golfing Legends

In the long-ago summer of ’67, I went with a couple of friends to a day-long golf match at the Toronto Golf Club, the third-oldest course in North America.  We were there to watch two of the game’s leading players go head-to-head for Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf, a very popular TV program of the time.

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American Mickey Wright, a winner of 82 LPGA championships and 13 majors, was matched against a young Canadian amateur, Marlene Stewart, who went on to become the only person ever to win the Australian, British, Canadian, and U.S. Amateur Championships.  Both women have since been elected into the World Golf Hall of Fame in St. Augustine, Florida.

My friends and I were rooting for the Canadian, of course, and after nine holes, she was up by one.  We had rushed ahead and strategically placed ourselves behind the ninth green, by the path the players would use on their way to the tenth tee.

As they left the green, the women stopped to be interviewed by the co-hosts of the program, two revered PGA golfers, Jimmy Demaret and Gene Sarazen, by then both retired from the game.  Demaret had won 31 tour events during his career, and was the first three-time winner of the Masters.  Sarazen, known as ‘The Squire’, had won seven major championships, and is one of five golfers to have won a career grand slam—a U.S. Open (twice), a PGA Championship (three times), the British Open, and the Masters.  Both of them are also in the Golf Hall of Fame.

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These four people were, indeed, superstars, and there they were, standing right in front of me as the camera rolled, taping proceedings for the hour-long telecast scheduled for later in the season.

I don’t remember what was asked and answered during the interview; it took place, after all, fifty-three years ago.  Nor do I remember being conscious at the time that I might be captured on film directly behind the celebrity foursome.  And I do not remember ever seeing the program when it was eventually broadcast.

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Many years later, my eldest daughter, Tara, had married a young CPGA golfer, head professional at one of Ontario’s premier golf courses.  We went with them on a week-long golfing holiday to Myrtle Beach, where we played several of the outstanding courses in the area.  At the end of one particular day, after enjoying a lovely dinner, the two couples withdrew to our separate bedrooms to read, watch TV, or, in my case, fall asleep.

Sometime shortly after I had done just that, my daughter burst into our room, face alight with excitement.

“Dad!  Dad!” she cried.

I wakened immediately, alarmed, worried something was wrong.

“Dad!” she said, plopping herself on the bed beside me.  “Did you ever go see a golf match at the old Toronto Golf Club?”

“Huh?” I managed.

“Dad, years ago, Marlene Stewart played a match with Mickey Wright, and it was taped for Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf.  Were you there?”

shell

Sitting up now, I tried to remember.  “Yeah, I think maybe I was.  I would’ve been in my early twenties, before I got married.  Why are you asking me now?”

“I knew it!” my daughter said, clapping her hands.  By now, our son-in-law, Adam, had joined her in our room.

“This is unbelievable,” he said.  “I was fooling with the remote and stopped on the Golf Channel.  By chance, there was an old black-and-white program showing a game in Toronto, so we watched it for a bit.  The guys hosting it were interviewing the two women playing the match, and there was a young guy standing behind them, right in the middle of the screen.”

My daughter cut in.  “I thought, ‘Holy cow!  That guy looks a lot like my dad, but younger.’  And just as I was thinking that, Adam said, ‘I think that might be your dad standing there.  How old is this program?’  So, it was you?”

The memories were slowly creeping back.  “I guess so, yeah,” I said.  “I was standing really close to them after the front nine, and I think you’re right.  They did stop to be interviewed.”

“Did you get an autograph from any of them?” Tara asked.

“Nope,” I said, seeing it again through the mists of time.  “As I recall, Marlene Stewart wasn’t much older than I was, and kinda cute.  I’d have been more likely to ask for a date.”

They laughed at that, even my wife, and then my son-in-law said, “I’ve seen you play.  You should have asked for a lesson!”

lessons2

We all laughed at the truth of that, but honestly, I’d been much too shy at the time to ask for any of those things—an autograph, a date, or a lesson.

To this day, I have never seen that program.  And I know my memories of being there at the match have been warped by the intervening years.  But I do remember those  people—Demaret, Sarazen, Wright, and Stewart—just as they were then, frozen in time.  Golfing legends.

I was certainly starstruck in the moment.  And I could never have imagined reliving the experience through the eyes of a grown daughter half a century later.

Wonderful world of golf, indeed!

By Myself

No one, I don’t think, would ever mistake me for a recluse, a loner, a solitary wayfarer along the road of life.  I am, generally speaking, among the Hail fellow, well-met! sorts of people, one who enjoys lively conversations and adventures with friends and family.

But I must admit, there do come those times when I like to get off the well-trod path and retreat into a little world of my own.  It may be that you, too, enjoy doing the same thing, so mine may not be a completely unique peccadillo.

However, the things I prefer to do when I’m by myself may be different from what others choose.  For me, the top three include riding my bicycle, playing my harmonicas, and writing all manner of things—poetry and prose, articles, blogs, and books.

I got my first bike, brand-new, when I was ten years old—for forty dollars, of which my parents paid half.  Within a month, it was stolen!  I remember being outraged and heartbroken, both.  But the worst insult was learning that, if I wanted to replace it, I’d have to save up half the cost again.  Life seemed particularly unfair at that point.

I did it, though, and purchased an identical bike—maroon, coaster-brakes, a new lock.  During the next half-dozen years, until driving the family car became an option, riding my bike opened up new worlds for me.  I could ride forever, it seemed, miles further than I could ever have walked, in and out of places no larger vehicle could navigate.

That bike served as my horse when we were playing cowboys in the park; a motorcycle when we were playing drag-racers in the schoolyard (complete with stiff cardboard cut-outs clipped to the rear fork to make a loud, chattering noise as the spokes battered them); and a tow-truck to pull my cartload of newspapers on pre-dawn deliveries.  I loved my bicycle.

Different bikes over the years served me just as well, especially as a young father when one or the other of my wee daughters would ride in the seat attached behind me.  Up hills and down, my wife and I spent many hours cycling with our girls on their own bikes, well into their teenage years.

bike

Today, long into retirement, I still love to ride, mostly by myself now, able to go as slow or as fast as I like—or whatever my body dictates.  Lost in thought, I ride the roads, the trails, even cow-paths sometimes, marvelling at the changing surroundings, enjoying the peace and solitude.  It’s one of my favourite things to do by myself.

It’s the same when I play my harmonicas—my mouth organs, my harps.  I started playing when I was about the same age as when I got my first bike.  I remember asking Santa for a Hohner Marine Band, the small one, and was overjoyed to find it beside my stocking one Christmas morning.

I still have it, the very same one.  Some of the reeds are damaged, of course—that Christmas was about sixty-five years ago—but I’ll never let it go.  I still play recognizable songs on it (recognizable to me, at least), even if some of the notes are audible only to me.  Do you know O, Susanna?

Other harmonicas followed as time went on, all Hohners—a couple of which I still have.  They’re dented here and there, discoloured in spots, but the sound is almost as good as ever.  I spent many a frustrating hour trying to learn how to play a chromatic harmonica well, eventually resigning myself to an acceptance of mediocrity.  And I listened whenever I could to such giants of the instrument as Toots Thielemans, Little Walter, and Big Mama Thornton.

harmonicas

Abraham Lincoln reportedly said, Two of my favorite things are sitting on my front porch smoking a pipe of sweet hemp, and playing my Hohner harmonica.  I’ve done the very same thing many, many times—but not with Abe, and without the hemp.

I do it still today, usually when no one is home.  The music sounds as sweet to me while I’m playing as ever it did, but I’ve learned that, to the ears of others, it may not be quite as pleasurable.  And so, to spare them, playing the harmonica by myself is one of my favourite things to do.

The third, of course, is writing—an example of which you’re reading right now.  Writing is, almost by definition, a solitary endeavour, even selfish, thanks to its exclusion of others and the distractions they bring.  Ideas spring into my head at any time, anywhere, even in the dead of night.  On more occasions than I care to remember, I’ve staggered to the keyboard in a pre-dawn darkness, so as not to lose the next brilliant idea.

Writing fiction is like playing God.  After something has been recorded in an early chapter, let us say, but then overtaken by a contrary (and better) idea in a later chapter, it is nothing to go back and erase the original draft, to revise the very history I’ve created.  I can change people’s names, their appearance, the things that happen to them, all at a whim.  It’s a form of omnipotence—albeit, very limited.

I usually write with music playing softly in my earbuds, almost always from the classical repertoire.  It serves to mask ambient noise from elsewhere in the house, focus my thoughts on the subject at hand, and free my imagination for long stretches at a time.  I wonder sometimes if Mozart might ever have envisioned this solitary writer listening to his symphonies and sonatas, creating a literary piece that has never existed before, just as he did with his music.

I know.  Probably not.

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But that doesn’t matter.  It’s the freedom and peace I enjoy, whether riding, making music, or writing.  I don’t believe I’d like being lonely; but I do appreciate having the opportunity to be alone now and then, able to engage in my favourite things.

By myself.

You’ll Never Know

The melody was as familiar as my mother’s cheek on mine, the words had long ago been committed to heart.  The singer was Aunt Marie, my mother’s older sister, her voice reedier now than in her youth, her pitch a trifle off.  But the emotion she felt shone through in every chord.

You’ll never know just how much I love you,

You’ll never know just how much I care…

You'll Never Know

The occasion was the fiftieth anniversary of her marriage to Uncle Bob, and six of us were celebrating on the deck of my home overlooking the lake—my wife and I, my mother and father, and Marie and Bob.  She was standing by the railing, singing to him as he sat in the old, wicker rocking-chair.

They’d married in the summer of 1942, enjoying a three-day honeymoon in Halifax, Nova Scotia, before saying a tearful goodbye when he was shipped overseas to join his regiment.  It was three years before they saw each other again, when he returned home, battered but unbroken, a couple of weeks after V-E Day.

ve day

As my aunt sang on, her shoulder-length hair, salt and pepper now, fluffed and fell in the gentle breeze off the water.

…And if I tried, I still couldn’t hide my love for you,

Surely you know, for haven’t I told you so

A million or more times…

Within a month of returning home from Europe, Bob had gone off again, this time to the gold mines of Kirkland Lake in northern Ontario, where his degree in mining engineering had landed him a job.  Marie joined him three months later, leaving her job and family in Toronto, and they stayed in that booming gold-town for the next twenty-five years.

I spent almost every summer of my childhood with them, for they never had children of their own.  I thought of them as my second parents, certainly my favourite aunt and uncle, and to this day, the times I had with them rank among the most enjoyable of my life.

mile of gold

I used to hear them sing together after I’d been tucked into bed, she in a dusky alto, he in a clear tenor befitting his Irish heritage, and it was from them I developed my lifelong love of singing.

The last ten years of Bob’s career had brought them back to the city, working in the provincial Ministry of Mines.  Although they were closer, I saw them less often, having married and begun a family of my own.  But they remained as dear to me as ever.

Leaning against the railing by now, my aunt’s voice had begun to quaver, the sentiment of the song assailing her.

You went away and my heart went with you,

I speak your name in my every prayer…

Within a few years of their retirement, my uncle had gone away again—this time to fight a war he could not win against the pernicious onset of dementia.  But on that momentous day on the deck by the lake, he’d been with us for awhile—alert, engaged, and as happy as ever.  Inevitably, though, he’d drifted off, as was happening much more often by then, his eyebrows knitted quizzically above a thousand-yard-stare we could never penetrate.  He was a part of us still, yet apart from us irrevocably.

Alzheimer Dementia Brain Disease

My aunt had continued her song, voice choked with emotion.

If there is some other way to prove that I love you,

I swear I don’t know how…

And she stopped right there, unable to finish, tears welling, rolling slowly down her weathered cheeks.  None of us knew quite what to do, so we just sat there, watching her watch her husband, not a sound to be heard.

And then, the most touching thing happened.  Bob had slowly turned toward his wife, perhaps wondering why the song had been cut off.  Then, rising from the rocker, he’d shuffled over to stand in front of her.  As their eyes joined, he lifted her hands to his shoulders and placed his own on either side of her waist.

And softly, he sang the closing lines to her.

You’ll never know

If you don’t…know…now.

Bob died before the year was out, mercifully for him, sadly for us.  But I’ve never forgotten that song they shared on the day of their golden anniversary.

couple

And I believe they both knew in that moment how very much they were loved.

A Christmas Story

On a cold park bench, enveloped in stench,

Slumped a woman—haggard, old,

With long, straggly hair, face wrinkled with care,

Clothes ragged—shivering, cold.

As I passed her by, idly wondering why

She was there, and whence she came,

She disturbed my cheer as Christmas drew near.

A mystery—and a shame!

woman1

But one little lad approached her, quite sad,

Stood quietly by her side.

They spoke not a word—least not that I heard—

And the woman softly cried.

The boy bowed his head and something was said

Between them.  What could it be?

Then after a while, with a tearful smile,

She lifted the boy to her knee.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

He offered the hag a gift from the bag

He had purchased for his Mum.

A porcelain cup from which she could sup,

That had cost a tidy sum.

And from his worn purse a coin he disbursed

Into her scarred, bony hand.

It wasn’t too much, but oh, it was such

A gesture—humble, yet grand.

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So I stole away, embarrassed I’d say,

Compared to that little lad.

I hadn’t stopped there to show her some care;

He’d given her all he had.

When he left the crone on the bench alone,

Dark came to subdue the light.

The snow gently fell, I heard the church bell,

As day surrendered to night.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

At Christmas Morn’s dawn, the old hag was gone,

As quickly as she’d appeared.

I heaved a great sigh as I hurried by

To the church that I revered.

But on my way back…on the bench, a sack,

Tied gaily in Christmas wrap.

On the card, the name of the lad who came

To sit on the woman’s lap.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

He opened it up and pulled out the cup,

Ablaze now, silver and gold.

Reflecting the light, it blinded my sight—

My terror could not be told.

I fell to my knees, immediately seized

By shame for how I had erred,

Ignoring the crone, bereft and alone,

When my love I should have shared.

cup2

Though it sounds absurd, in my head I heard

The Lord’s voice, loving but stern—

You have been measured; I am displeasured.

Now you must listen and learn.

In all of your town, just one boy I found

Who took time to pay Me heed.

He came to My aid, together we prayed

In My hour of greatest need.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

With sorrowful face, I asked for the grace

Of forgiveness, mercy, love.

His next words were clear, they rang in my ear,

Admonishing from above—

Take care how you treat the poor in the street,

They, too, are My children, you see,

And whate’er you do unto these wretched few,

You do it also to Me.